Where to begin with Louis Malle

As three of his best films land on BFI Player, we plot a beginner’s path through the eclectic filmography of Louis Malle, whose career produced classics in both France and Hollywood

29 March 2021

By Elena Lazic

Au revoir les enfants (1987)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Although French director Louis Malle began working around the same time as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, he doesn’t properly belong with the French New Wave. Firstly, unlike most of the filmmakers of the movement, Malle did attend film school – in fact, that’s where he got his first big break, when he was chosen among the students of the prestigious school now known as La Fémis to be co-director on Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World (1955). With its groundbreaking use of undersea cinematography, the film went on to win both the best documentary feature Oscar and the Palme d’Or.

Louis Malle

Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, Malle was given opportunities to explore his artistic ambitions from an early age, though he would struggle with this image of having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth all his life. 

But even autobiographical details aside, a quick glance at Malle’s filmography reveals a filmmaker difficult to pin down: his rich output was eclectic, ranging from French arthouse films to American pictures, documentaries and even the erotic thriller.   

The best place to start – Lift to the Scaffold

It’s likely that most people begin their exploration of Malle’s work with his solo feature debut, Lift to the Scaffold (1958). A cool, gripping thriller, it’s a notable film for many reasons: scored by Miles Davis, it also made Jeanne Moreau a star.

Although what propels the action forward is a killer’s desperate attempt to retrieve incriminating evidence, the film’s beating heart is Moreau who, as the killer’s lover and the dead man’s wife, spends almost the entire film nonchalantly wandering the streets of Paris. From a distance she appears calm, but her face in close-up betrays a violent torrent of emotions raging just underneath the surface. 

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

What to watch next 

Malle’s follow-up, The Lovers (1958), also stars Moreau, but is more in step with the languid actress. The tension in her stillness echos the taut precision of the film’s construction. The Lovers is provocative, from its somewhat satirical title to its climactic scene of, indeed, sexual climax. Rather than following a couple, as its name would suggest, the film focuses squarely on a frustrated woman who finds what she was missing when she sleeps with a total stranger. 

The film was so shocking for its time that a cinema manager in Ohio was charged for exhibiting it. Later, a Supreme Court judge reversed the conviction, famously arguing that the film was not pornography with the justification: “I know it when I see it.” 

The Fire Within (1963)

This was only the first of several times that Malle would flirt with controversy. Three years after the jovial experimental oddity Zazie dans le métro (1960) – a sizzling snapshot of France in a new age of accelerated modernity, and a prescient look at an emerging young generation – Malle would confront the taboo topics of depression and suicide in The Fire Within (1963).

As in The Lovers but with more rage and a more ambitious scope, Malle here offers a sharp critique of the morally vacuous petit bourgeois lifestyle. An easy target, perhaps, yet his takedown is anything but coolly analytical. Rooted in the emotions of its main character, the film is a heartfelt cri de cœur about disconnection and the malaise of being. 

In his next brush with polemic, the Frenchman angered Indian officials with his seven-part TV documentary Phantom India (1969) by focusing on the disadvantaged majority rather than on the English-speaking, developing parts of the country. Although epic in scope, the film has all the visceral immediacy of one man’s experience, an outsider fully aware of his blinkered perspective but with his eyes and heart wide open. The BBC was for some years banned from filming in India as a result. 

Lacombe Lucien (1974)

Malle’s next effort, Murmur of the Heart (1971), tackled yet another taboo – incest – yet ultimately proved less controversial than his subsequent French occupation drama Lacombe Lucien (1974). Both films are firmly anchored in the perspective of young men led by their emotions and reactions into shocking, morally complex situations. But while the young protagonist of Murmur of the Heart hails from a loving bourgeois family (like Malle), Lucien is an uneducated and lonely countryman brimming with inchoate rage. 

The film is a blistering portrait of a young man seduced by the power afforded those who fell in line with the Vichy government during the occupation. Now held up as one of Malle’s best, it was decried in some parts of the media as an insult to the Resistance.

Lucien was inspired in part by Malle’s first-hand observation of student protests in Mexico and torture in the Algerian war, and by the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The poetic film is a reflection on human responsibility and the banality of evil, more than it is a documentary-like film about collaboration. Malle ultimately set the film in a French historical context because it was more familiar to him. It would be 13 years before he would ever come this close to that subject again, in 1987’s Au revoir les enfants.

Children’s naivety, by turns freeing and dangerous, always fascinated Malle. It found its most complete articulation in this film, based on an episode from his childhood. Somewhat shielded from the war in a Catholic boarding school, Malle witnessed one of his friends, a young Jewish boy in hiding, being taken away by the Nazis. The director’s characteristic blend of moment-to-moment joie de vivre and implacable fatality is at its most poignant in this film, which perfectly evokes both the scattered vitality of childhood and the bracing hyper-awareness felt in moments we’ll remember forever.  

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

This ability to make films simultaneously light and heavy made Malle a perfect fit for My Dinner with Andre (1981). Written by American playwright Wallace Shawn and based on his conversations with Broadway actor Andre Gregory, the film is both a simple dinner, unobtrusively filmed by Malle, and a spiritual journey whose intensity is echoed by the formal challenge taken up by the director: to make an interesting film out of one long conversation. 

As Andre tells of his existential awakening and ‘Wally’ listens, Malle’s camera captures the latter’s expressions, ranging from polite neutrality and disbelief to worry and enthusiasm. It also gives us time to scrutinise Andre’s face for clues as to just how seriously we should take his stories of retreats in Polish forests, haunted flags and strange theatre experiments. That its reflection on the meaning of a life well-lived is ultimately unresolved makes My Dinner with Andre a quintessential Malle film. 

Where not to start

My Dinner with Andre came in the middle of Malle’s more chequered American period, which has some notable films (including 1981’s Golden Lion winner Atlantic City) but tends to find him at his most anonymous. His most regrettable work would in fact come from the UK. Damage (1992) stars a young Juliette Binoche as the elegantly dressed temptress to Jeremy Irons’ bored MP, the two experiencing the kind of wordless attraction symptomatic of the horned up cinema of the 1990s. Their excruciatingly awkward sex scenes prefigure a tragic but profoundly ludicrous finale.

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